Phonics and Structural Analysis

Phonics and Structural Analysis

Kathy Chen sits with a Big Book propped on one knee and seven of her first graders clustered on the floor in front of her. Pointing to each word, she reads, “…and he pulled the rabbit out of his…” She pauses and asks,
“Who can tell me the next word?” Four voices shout, “Hat!”
“Good,” says Kathy. “Who can tell me why?”
“It’s in the picture,” one student answers.
“Yes, and what letter does hat begin with?” Kathy asks.

“That’s right,” says Kathy. “Does anyone see another word that begins with h? Keesha, come and point to the word. Good! That word is his, and it begins with h. Let’s all say his and hat out loud. Can you hear that they begin with the same sound?”

Kathy is taking advantage of a shared reading session to teach her students a lesson in decoding, the process of identifying the written form of a spoken word. She uses three types of cues. Semantics (meaning) and structural analysis help the students identify the word hat; phonics (letter-sound associations) help them learn to recognize hat, he and his. “All three ways of learning to read are essential,” says Kathy. “Phonics can’t stand alone.”


Teacher Tip

Teaching Phonics in SequenceTry this progression when teaching phonics:

  1. Alliteration, Rhyme, Onsets
    and Rimes
  2. Single Consonant Sounds
  3. Consonant Clusters (bl, gr, and sp)
  4. Consonant Digraphs (sh, ch, and th)
  5. Short Vowels
  6. Long Vowels
  7. Vowel or Vowel — Consonant Pairs
    (oo, ew, oi, and oy)

Ideas for Teaching Phonics

  • Use words and names that are part of students’ visual environment to reinforce letter-sound associations.
  • Create a phonics chart that contains words with a particular phonogram.
  • Have students write tongue twisters using words that begin with the same sound.
  • Have teams brainstorm to generate the longest list of words containing a particular phonogram.

Structural Analysis

In Julia Carriosa’s fourth grade class, word skill instruction focuses on structural analysis, the process of using familiar word parts (base words, prefixes, and suffixes) to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words.

“By fourth grade, most of my students are already skilled at letter=sound associations,” she says. “But they’re now dealing with harder words, and even when they’ve pronounced a word correctly, they might not know what it means. So we focus on context clues and whatever meaning clues the word itself might contain.”

Be sure your students understand that many prefixes and suffixes have more than one meaning, as in inactive and inroad, and that even when they know the correct meaning of an affix, they might still come up with an incorrect definition. Emphasize the importance of checking a word’s context to see if their guessed meaning makes sense.

These checklists may be helpful in assessing your students’ decoding skills.

Emergent Readers

  • beginning consonants
  • end consonants
  • medial consonants
  • consonant blends (bl, gr, sp)
  • consonant digraphs (sh, th, ch)
  • short vowels
  • long vowels
  • vowel pairs (oo, ew, oi, oy)

Early/Fluent Readers

  • inflected forms (-s, -es, -ed, -ing, -ly)
  • contractions
  • possessives
  • compound words
  • syllables
  • base words
  • root words
  • prefixes
  • suffixes


Teacher Tip

Structural Analysis and Phonics
Shared reading
Have students raise their hands during
a second reading when they hear a word
that contains a certain sound.
Guided reading
After finishing a story, have students
review it for compound words.
Shared writing
Have students compose a rhyming poem.
Writing aloud
Have students think aloud as they predict
how a word is spelled.

High-Frequency Words and Vocabulary

High-Frequency Words

High-frequency words are the words that appear most often in printed materials. According to Robert Hillerich, “Just three words I, and, the account for ten percent of all words in printed English.”

“High-frequency words are hard for my students to remember because they tend to be abstract,” says first grade teacher Kathy Chen. They can’t use a picture clue to figure out the word with. And phonics clues don’t always work either.”

Learning to recognize high-frequency words by sight is critical to developing fluency in reading. Kathy explains, “Recognizing these words gives students a basic context for figuring out other words. Once they recognize the, they can predict with amazing accuracy what the next word will be.”

Teacher TipWord Walls, lists of words that follow a particular pattern, are an effective tool for teaching high-frequency words and vocabulary. Here are some ideas:

  • With your students, choose words that have similar beginning sounds, vowel sounds, endings, or words on a particular subject.
  • When students find an appropriate word, have them add it to the list.
  • Encourage students to use these words in their writing and as a reference.

Ideas for Teaching High-Frequency Words

  • Have students create rebus sentences, using high-frequency words such as the, is, and in.
  • Write high-frequency words on cards. Have students form sentences using a pocket chart.
  • Have students keep lists of words they can read and write. When they have trouble with a word, they can refer to their notebooks.
  • Point out similarities between new words and those students can already decode.

Teaching Vocabulary

Julia Carriosa asks her fourth grade students to reread the following passage:

When ocean particles contain bits of soil, especially clay, the particles of earth stick to oil droplets. The more sediments that are mixed in the water, the more oil is eventually deposited on the ocean bottom.

“Now, let’s suppose you don’t know what sediments means,” says Julia. “What do you do?”

Lisa raises her hand. “Look it up in the dictionary?”

“Yes. But suppose you don’t have a dictionary handy. What else could you do?”

Julia then helps her students see that the passage contains enough context clues to give them an adequate understanding of the word sediments.

Choosing Vocabulary Words to Aid Comprehension

These steps can help you identify words that will improve students’ comprehension when taught directly.

  1. Identify a selection’s theme or key concepts.
  2. Cluster words from the selection that relate to the theme or key concepts.
  3. Eliminate words students know or can figure out from context clues or structural analysis.
  4. Eliminate words whose meaning is not needed to understand something important.

Ideas for Teaching Vocabulary

  • While reading aloud to the class, pause to discuss interesting or amusing words.
  • Have students list in their journals words that interest or confuse them.
  • Don’t have students copy definitions, but do teach them how to use a dictionary.
  • Use graphic devices to help students explore individual words or relationships between words.


Teacher Tip: Effective Instruction

  • Teach words in a meaningful context, using authentic literature.
  • Teach only a few words per reading selection.
  • Relate each word to students’ prior knowledge.
  • Group each word with other related words.
  • Have students use the word to express their own ideas and experiences.
  • Expose students to the word in a variety of contexts.